An hour later, as I approach Camp White Rock, already twenty minutes late for work, I’m surprised to see more men without shirts, about a dozen of the CCC boys, just outside the gate, marching into the wind along Crockers Creek, armed with axes and folding shovels on their belts. The Forest Army, I think, like in the yellow-and-green CCC poster in the infirmary. “Hi, Nursie!” the young men shout.
I pull over and roll down my window. “What’s going on?” I ask Lou Cross, my patient with the plantar wart, who is leading the troops.
“Working in the woods, miss.” He tips a green cowboy hat that is definitely not part of the regulation CCC uniform. “Going to dig a trench up the ravine and cut brush for a firebreak. It’s a big project. We have two natural barriers from a wildfire, the cliffs and the stream, but we’re vulnerable as hell on either side, pardon my French.”
“I don’t think there’s been a fire around here for ten years.”
“Makes it worse, especially this year when there’s not enough rain. Too much dead timber and dry brush.”
“What’s the gun for? In case you have a mutiny in this heat?” I ask with a smile. He has a pistol in a holster strapped to his hip.
“Copperheads or rattlers,” he says, pulling down his hat to keep it from blowing off. “Keep up, Morris! Roland, quit looking at the birds, we have a lot of work to do. Watch the ax, Snake! That thing could hurt someone.”
You can see why the fellows admire Lou; he’s a natural leader, comfortable with himself and comfortable with the young men. It’s apparently just Captain Wolfe who finds him irritating.
When I finally get to headquarters, Mrs. Ross is all in a dither. “He’s gone,” she says. “He just packed up and left. No good-bye or anything, just a note with his forwarding address.” She frantically paces back and forth.
“Milliken,” Boodean answers. “His wife came all the way from New England yesterday. Drove by herself. We think she gave the major an ultimatum: ‘Come home now or don’t come home ever.’ He took off with her in the night.”
“Oh, what will we do now!” Mrs. Ross twists around, flapping her arms like a chicken in a burning henhouse.
“I’m sure Captain Wolfe will step forward until they send someone. Maybe they’ll make him the superintendent.” I try to comfort her. “That would be nice.”
“Not likely.” Wolfe steps out of Milliken’s office. “I was trying to get someone in the main office at District Five to tell them Milliken is AWOL, but our antenna for the shortwave radio blew down this morning. Not the first time.”
“Did Major Milliken say anything to you? Is this a desertion or can he just resign?” I ask.
“No, I didn’t have a clue, except anyone could see he wasn’t happy. They’ll probably find him at home in Newton, Massachusetts.”
“So who will be in charge?” That’s Mrs. Ross again. She’s the kind of woman who can’t manage without a boss. “I could drive into town and telephone District Five. Kind of hate to in this wind.”
“I guess I’m in charge for now. I think we can manage for a day or two,” says the captain with a laugh. “Eventually we’ll get someone on the shortwave and they can figure it out. Meanwhile, I’ll have Mac in the welding shop come over to try to fix the antenna. Where’s Drake?”
“The fellow from the motor pool already took him up to the fire tower and the cook sent his lunch,” Boodean puts in. “This is his third day on White Rock Mountain and he doesn’t mind it at all. He’s almost his old self again.”
“Good,” I respond, wishing I knew more about silicosis and vowing to read up on it if I can find the topic in one of Blum’s old books.
“Nurse!” I hear a man call out as he stomps up on the porch. “Need help here.”
I can tell by the voice it’s the cowboy, Lou Cross.
“Shit!” a corpsman swears, hobbling into the infirmary with Lou Cross supporting him. The young man has his CCC shirt wrapped around his left lower leg and there’s blood leaking through and dripping onto the wooden floorboards. Boodean grabs the door as it crashes back in the wind.
“Watch your language, Snake! A lady is present. . . . Sorry, Miss Myers. This is Snake Nelson,” Lou Cross introduces him. “ ’Fraid he’s had a little accident. Cut himself with his own damned ax. Deep one too. Hope you can fix him. I’d hate to try to get to Boone Memorial in Torrington today. That hot wind must be forty or fifty miles an hour, could blow a truck right off the road. Can I leave him with you? I need to get back to the unit. Our goal is to get a trench up to the cliffs by dark.”
Boodean already has Snake lying down and is gently unwrapping the injured leg.
“Sure,” I say, turning to wash my hands in a bowl. Through the window, I watch as Lou mounts his horse and gallops back to the road.
“Okay, Private Nelson.” I pull a chair over to the bedside and look at the wound, then turn to the medic. “It’s bad, a deep cut on the shin, right down to the bone, but at least there’s not much contamination. We’ll need catgut suture, five percent carbolic acid, and gauze dressing.”
“Looks like you got yourself a week of enforced rest, Snake.” This time I call the man by his nickname, still having no idea what it means.
“And, yes, bring out some laudanum too, Boodean. He’ll need it.”
“You smell that, Boodean?” We’ve finished our morning clinic, a short one with only Snake’s deep cut, and are battling our way against the wind to the mess hall.
“Yeah, corn bread.”
“No.” I tilt my head back and flare my nostrils. “Smoke.”
“Hope the cook didn’t burn the corn bread,” Boodean worries. “I’m hungry as a wolf.”
“You talking about me, Private Boodean?” The captain laughs, holding his hat down, catching up with us.
“No, sir,” Boodean explains. “I was describing my appetite. Hungry as a wolf! Any word from District Five?”
“Not yet. I have two welders on the roof, but the wind is so strong, every time they think they’ve got the aerial fixed something else comes loose. Last I heard they made a brief connection with Camp Laurel, but reception was so poor they couldn’t communicate. I guess we can get along without a superintendent for another twenty-four hours.”
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